U.S. soldiers deployed on what Washington officials call a show of military support for Honduras and a training mission said Saturday they are ready for anything.
"We're prepared to do anything they ask us to do," Maj. Mike Nason of the 82nd Airborne Division headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C., said at the Palmerola air force base. "I don't want to speculate, but the 82nd Airborne is a combat unit. Anything can happen."Nason arrived in the first plane Thursday of an airlift of 3,200 American soldiers sent by the Reagan administration to Honduras. They were dispatched after Nicaraguan soldiers entered Honduran territory in pursuit of U.S.-backed rebels known as Contras.
U.S. officials say the troops will not engage in combat. They say the troops are in Honduras for a training mission combined with a show of force and support for the Central American nation.
But Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government has accused the United States of preparing to invade Nicaragua. President Daniel Ortega said last week his forces are ready to "liquidate" the U.S. troops.
Nason, from Garden City, N.Y., said the American soldiers would be surprised if they are called upon to do anything other than demonstrate American support for Honduras.
"Our orders remain that we're here to train. We're not here to enter into combat," he said.
The arrival of the 82nd Airborne and units of the 7th Light Infantry from Fort Ord, Calif., put U.S. strength in Honduras at about 6,900, according to Maj. Gary Hovatter, the public affairs officer for American troops in Honduras. The troops who had been here before the reinforcements were sent are assigned to various U.S. facilities and engaged in training exercises.
President Jose Azcona Hoyo of Honduras asked for the additional U.S. troops in hopes of forcing a Nicaraguan retreat, and he said Saturday he won't hesitate to ask for more U.S. assistance.
Azcona has asked for a U.S. helicopter airlift to help him deploy Honduran troops in the mountainous Bocay border region where the Sandinistas crossed the frontier.
Despite the tense situation, the American soldiers at the Palmerola headquarters were relaxed Saturday. Many said they looked forward to the training activities and nothing more.
"I like it. It's fun," said Pfc. Shane Lawson of Columbus, Ohio. "You can't train like this in the States, so we came down here. And we get to train with Honduran troops."
Sgt. Kenneth Martin Anderson said he was upset at protests back home over the deployment.
"They're protesting just to protest something," he said. `They don't understand that you can't have communists running free all over the place doing what they want to do. What happens if the United States gets attacked by communists?"
Anderson and Lawson were in a contingent of about 670 airborne soldiers in camouflage battle dress who climbed into Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters for the brief flight to their bivouack at the nearby base of Tamara.
Hovatter said the U.S. troops were sent to four Honduran bases: Tamara, just north of the capital; San Lorenzo in the south; Juticalpa, about 65 miles northeast of the area where the Nicarguan incursion took place, and Palmerola, 40 miles west of Tegucigalpa.
Nason denied Nicaraguan claims that the U.S. operation was designed to bring in equipment for the Contras in their 6-year-old war against the leftist Sandinistas.
"Wherever we go, the equipment goes. None of it will stay here," he said.
Nason said the 82nd flew in two tanks, four Cobra combat helicopters, three light helicopters, more than 100 machine guns, a dozen 105mm howitzers and several thousand rifles.